Barred Candidates Cast a Shadow over Guatemala’s Polls
Barred Candidates Cast a Shadow over Guatemala’s Polls
Guatemala's Supreme Electoral Tribunal workers set up a polling station in Guatemala City on June 15, 2019 on the eve of the presidential elections. Orlando ESTRADA / AFP
Q&A / Latin America & Caribbean 12 minutes

Barred Candidates Cast a Shadow over Guatemala’s Polls

On 25 June, Guatemalans will elect a new president, completing a campaign riddled with controversy. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Pamela Ruiz explains that the contenders are promising tough security policies and distancing themselves from the past international anti-corruption initiatives amid widespread public disaffection.

What is at stake in Guatemala’s elections?

On 25 June, close to ten million eligible Guatemalan voters will choose a new president and vice president, as well as 160 congressional deputies and hundreds of local mayors. If none of the 23 candidates in the presidential race receives more than 50 per cent of the vote – an outcome that currently appears improbable – a second round will be held on 27 August. The new president is to be sworn in at the start of 2024.

A majority of Guatemalans are clamouring for new leadership. The incumbent, conservative Alejandro Giammattei, is constitutionally prohibited from standing for re-election, but most voters are glad to see the back of him in any case. Three quarters of Guatemalans rate his term in office, which coincided with the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, as below par. Most voters do not view the forthcoming elections as an opportunity to achieve meaningful change, however. There is a widespread perception that political and business elites have manipulated the judicial system to in effect bar politicians who could threaten their interests from running for high office. At the same time, politicians who have longstanding ties to the country’s powerbrokers have been allowed to stay in the race despite running afoul of eligibility rules such as being related to leaders who came to power by force. As a result, many Guatemalans are unenthusiastic about the vote: one survey in May found that 45 per cent of those questioned would not vote for any candidate and large majorities disapprove of most state institutions in Guatemala.

As of 2020, 59 per cent of [Guatemala's] residents were living in poverty, a rate that rose to nearly 80 per cent among the large Indigenous population.

This broad dissatisfaction has deep roots. Guatemala – the most populous and diverse country in Central America – is one of the most unequal in the hemisphere. As of 2020, 59 per cent of the country’s residents were living in poverty, a rate that rose to nearly 80 per cent among the large Indigenous population. The country has the lowest level of tax collection in Latin America – a mere 12 per cent of GDP, roughly half the regional average. Lack of economic opportunity and longstanding discrimination against the Indigenous community drives tens of thousands of Guatemalans to emigrate every year.

Exiled prosecutors, analysts and many Guatemalan citizens believe that the country’s entrenched elites safeguard their power not just by serving as political gatekeepers but also by beating back efforts to root out corruption and impunity. In particular, members of Guatemala’s ruling class waged war on the UN Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which was established in 2007, claiming that it violated national sovereignty. Yet 70 per cent of the population approved of the commission’s work. At the height of its influence, the commission steered the indictment and arrest in 2015 of then President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti on charges of fraud and embezzlement (each of them has since been sentenced to sixteen years in prison). Four years later, former President Jimmy Morales, whose family members had been subject to investigation by the commission for false invoicing, shuttered the CICIG.

Giammattei has further clamped down on individuals working to make Guatemala a fairer society. Under his administration, 35 former judicial officials and 22 journalists have gone into exile due to harassment, death threats and criminal prosecution. The current attorney general, Consuelo Porras, is on the U.S. State Department’s Engel list, which names individuals in Central America whom the U.S. government identifies as corrupt and anti-democratic. Porras is allegedly involved in obstructing corruption probes by transferring or firing prosecutors. The head of the office of the special prosecutor against impunity, Rafael Curruchiche, also features on the Engel list. He has mounted efforts to prosecute a former senior CICIG official, Leily Santizo, and filed criminal charges against José Rubén Zamora, the president of Guatemala’s most prominent investigative newspaper, elPeriódico. The daily has been forced to close, and Zamora was recently sentenced to six years in prison. 

The new president will, in all likelihood, refrain from tackling entrenched corruption; at worst, he or she may even intensify political persecution of the small number of dissidents left. None of the leading presidential candidates has voiced support for the CICIG.  

Who are the favourites, and what interests do they represent?

The leading contenders have long been part of Guatemala’s political and diplomatic landscape. The initial frontrunner was Zury Ríos, daughter of the former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who was convicted to 80 years in prison in May 2013 for crimes against humanity and genocide of the Ixil people, only for the Constitutional Court to annul the sentence (he died in 2018). A former congressional deputy, Ríos describes her party as “classical liberal” and herself as a devoted Christian. Sandra Torres is a former first lady known for her “solidarity aid” program, which, among other things, provided cash transfers for mothers to send their children to school. She now promises to slash taxes on basic food products and boost social programs. She was arrested in 2019 on charges of breaking campaign finance laws in her 2015 presidential race, but she was acquitted in 2022 after a judge ruled there was not enough evidence to proceed to trial. Edmond Mulet – a former congressional deputy, ambassador and high-level UN diplomat – has promised to provide students with electronic equipment and reduce the cost of medication. All candidates pledge to address corruption, but without resorting to the UN.

While the leading candidates can all boast of extensive political and administrative experience, the Guatemalan media has uncovered disreputable operators – including figures previously prosecuted by the CICIG – on their lists of candidates for the vice presidency, Congress and local government. It is hardly surprising, perhaps: connections between private financiers and criminal interests with elected officials have long been a hallmark of Guatemalan politics. Indeed, investigating that nexus was one of the CICIG’s priorities before it was shuttered.

Small, often short-lived parties have proliferated since Guatemala reverted to a democracy in 1985.

Among the most biddable parts of the political system are its parties, 27 of which are registered to run for the 2023 polls. Small, often short-lived parties have proliferated since Guatemala reverted to a democracy in 1985. Some of these minnow parties are affiliated with one another; others emerged from ruptures within parties; still others have struck ad hoc alliances solely for the forthcoming elections. Parties themselves tend to be fragile confections, often little more than an individual leader joined by family members and collaborators; switching parties, a practice known as transfugismo, has become a staple of Guatemalan political life, as deputies or other elected officials seek out better, more lucrative opportunities. Some 78 per cent of congressional deputies are seeking re-election under different banners from the ones under which they were elected.

Genuine opposition forces do still exist. Bernardo Arévalo, son of the first democratically elected Guatemalan president, is running for the presidency as head of the Semilla (Seed) Movement. He has laid out a detailed and budgeted plan of reforms, but he has little hope of making it to the runoff, according to opinion polls. Other candidates also voice outright opposition to the ruling elites, although none has so far emerged as a potential poll winner.

Is this a free and fair election, and what risks are there of unrest?  

This election is shaping up to be Guatemala’s most controversial in decades. The fact that three prominent candidates were prohibited from running has led swathes of the public to view the contest as rigged.

The first of the standard-bearers to be struck was Roberto Arzú: electoral authorities banned him from running in February, after the businessman and first-born son of former Guatemalan President Álvaro Arzú was accused of embarking on his campaign before he was allowed to. He responded by arguing that he was denied the right to stand because he would take votes from Ríos. His appeal failed, however, and on 25 May the Constitutional Court officially excluded him from the race.

In March 2023, the Constitutional Court banned presidential hopeful Thelma Cabrera (a Mayan leader and human rights defender who won 10.4 per cent of the vote in the 2019 election) and her running mate Jordán Rodas (previously the country’s human rights ombudsman, who led the legal campaign to prevent the CICIG’s closure) from standing in the election. Their campaign had proposed to rekindle the anti-corruption fight at the highest echelons of government and to promote Indigenous people’s rights. The tribunal declared Rodas’ certificate of good conduct, a document that all candidates are required to present, invalid after his successor as human rights ombudsman claimed the candidate had committed an administrative infraction. “Everything is co-opted”, Rodas declared in response. “There is no independent institution today that guarantees democracy in Guatemala”. The candidates appealed the decision before the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court, and sought support from abroad, but to no avail.

Perhaps the most surprising elimination was that of wealthy businessman Carlos Pineda, who was prohibited from running in May. At the time, he was leading in the polls. He and his entire slate of candidates were barred from the elections following an injunction referring to three anomalies in a party meeting held in 2022. The person who filed the legal complaint against Pineda was Manuel Baldizón, a former presidential candidate who was found guilty in the U.S. in 2018 of money laundering and served 21 months in jail.

The fate that has befallen the excluded candidates is all the more striking when contrasted with the treatment handed down to other, seemingly favoured hopefuls. Article 186(c) of the country’s constitution prohibits Ríos from running since she is the daughter of a coup leader – the grounds on which she was denied the right to run in the 2019 elections. Ríos later successfully appealed this ruling at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, arguing that her individual political rights had been obstructed. Sandra Torres’ running mate, Romeo Estuardo Guerra Lemus, should in principle also be denied the right to join the race: Article 186 (f) of the constitution disqualifies him from competing for high office because he is an evangelical pastor.

A prime motivation of [Guatemalan] elites appears to be shielding business interests from judicial investigation.

These arbitrary rulings have led many Guatemalans to suspect that the country’s next president has in effect already been selected in back-room negotiations, where powerful groups have decided who is eligible to run and who is barred from standing for office. A prime motivation of these elites appears to be shielding business interests from judicial investigation. Former candidate Arzú argues that “a conglomerate has co-opted the government, the deputies, the courts, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. … And also part of this are businesspeople who want to continue with privileges, monopolies, with abuses in their sectors. So, really, the president that they decide to support is the appointed manager.… What they are looking for is impunity”.

Whatever the precise reasons behind the rulings that have shaped the field of contenders, the sense that the winner has already been chosen, or that candidates have bypassed the rules without penalty, looks set to lead a number of Guatemalans into forsaking the ballot box. As elections get closer, presidential hopefuls excluded from running are calling on their supporters to cast a “null vote”, on the understanding that if over 50 per cent of votes cast are null, the election has to be repeated. Guatemalan analysts, however, note that people are more likely to simply abstain than cast a null vote.

Unlike elsewhere in Latin America, widespread mistrust in state institutions and belief that the country is worse off than it was three years ago may result in apathy rather than protest. Guatemala has long suffered low voter turnout, with many citizens arguing they receive nothing from the state and having few expectations for change. This vote could represent a return to the country’s status quo of intensely competitive elections met with public indifference. Even so, violence has continued to plague the campaign, with attacks on candidates, supporters and party workers rising as voting day approaches. The Guatemalan think-tank Diálogos reports that fifteen people involved in the various election campaigns – including drivers and volunteers – were killed from January to the first half of June. On 14 June, presidential candidate Edmond Mulet announced that gunshots had been heard at his party headquarters in Chimaltenango, accompanied by a threatening note. Three days later, a candidate for Torres’ party was gunned down.

 Foreign governments and leaders have taken note. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the EU – which along with the Organization of American States is deploying an election observation mission to the country – has called for a competitive, inclusive and transparent electoral process. Foreign leaders have made similar appeals, including U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who spoke to President Giammattei by telephone in May. Those efforts, however, appear not to have had much impact, at least not on which presidential contenders can participate.

How will the new administration address the main public concerns, including security?

Guatemalans identify the high cost of living, crime and insecurity, corruption and unemployment as their chief public concerns. While citizens in the countryside are most worried by the state of the economy, urban dwellers say tackling insecurity is their priority. Guatemala has experienced a reduction in homicides since 2011, reaching its lowest death toll in 2020; during that period, its homicide rate declined from 46 homicides per 100,000 people to 17.3. But 2021 and 2022 saw upticks in death tolls, concentrated in hotspots in the departments of El Progreso, Escuintla, San Marcos, Guatemala, Jutiapa and Izabal. 

Various candidates have cleaved to the policies espoused by the president of neighbouring El Salvador, Bukele, who has been celebrated by political constituencies across the political spectrum in Latin America for waging a “war on gangs” through mass incarceration of suspected criminals. Rios has proposed what she calls a Strengthening Plan, which draws inspiration from Bukele and from Plan Colombia, the U.S.-backed campaign to fight drug traffickers and insurgents in Colombia that began in 1998. Her plan aims to improve territorial and border management, bolster state control of prisons and achieve greater transparency in spending. She has stated she would apply the death penalty to those who commit serious crimes, particularly murder and child rape, even though capital punishment is in effect outlawed by the San José Pact, to which Guatemala is a signatory. She has also said she would apply “civil death” to those found guilty of corruption, largely by denying them future government contracts.

Torres has focused her security plan on restructuring the National Civilian Police and installing more surveillance cameras. She has also stated her support for the death penalty for people who rape and murder children, although in later interviews she has acknowledged that capital punishment is not allowed in Guatemala. Mulet, for his part, has outlined what he calls a 24/7 Total Security plan, aimed at deploying police and military to 200 neighbourhoods, installing more cameras and boosting local crime prevention. In theory, the 1996 peace accords forbade the military from involvement in public security, but soldiers have on occasion assumed policing duties in the years since.

While the new president may seek to ape Latin America’s most popular current president, the incoming administration will likely find it difficult to garner public support. A weakened judicial system beholden to particular private or criminal interests will struggle to combat impunity: a reported seven of ten Guatemalans already believe the law is barely applied to those who commit crimes. Powerful business groups will most likely impede the state from boosting its tax intake to improve public services or social programs. Meanwhile, Guatemala will continue to come under U.S. pressure to collaborate in preventing migration and in controlling migrant flows northward over its territory. That responsibility is likely to grow as the country is set to house one of Latin America’s two Regional Processing Centres for people to claim asylum in the U.S. (Colombia will host the other). An election that is widely seen to have taken place on a tilted playing field will at a minimum give other governments in the region another precedent for electoral meddling. At worst, it may pose serious challenges to the legitimacy of Guatemala’s next president.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.